Theo Walcott’s introduction to the fray switched Arsenal’s flow to the dynamic and the direct to give the Gunners hope in the second leg at the Nou Camp.
Barely twenty minutes had registered on the clock but those watching the game were in unified agreement that already, they were witnessing something spectacular. Arsenal had just survived the most relentless onslaught you are likely to see in world football this season but yet, somehow, came out of the early exchange with no goals conceded. Barcelona threw wave after wave of attacks at the Arsenal goal with Manuel Almunia performing heroically to repel each and every one of them. Ten shots were fired in the first quarter of an hour and fans were wondering how many more were to come. Barcelona were mesmerising on the ball, hypnotic and the way they pulled around the Gunners’ defenders was probably most reminiscent of the Dinamo Moscow side of 1945 when they toured these shores and baffled every team they faced. Or even as spellbinding as Ajax in their 5-1 win over Liverpool in 1966 which forced Bill Shankly to peculiarly declare that “they were the most defensive team we have ever met.”
Arsenal were certainly suffering from an inferiority complex early on and it was mighty relief when on twenty-three minutes, Samir Nasri bent one past Victor Valdez post to show that there was a second side in this contest. Indeed Nasri had skinned Dani Alves more than once in the first half but Carlos Puyol’s last ditch blocks and an offside flag to Bendtner made sure nothing constructive came out of the runs. On the other side however, Andrey Arshavin was given no joy and Barcelona’s asphyxiating pressurising off the ball contributed to the Russian’s more prematurely than expected exit with injury.
Barcelona’s wingers played more narrower than usual, with Keita’s inclusion in the middle allowing the side to switch seamlessly from a 4-3-3 to their asymmetric 4-2-4. Xavi and Busquets were so comfortable in possession they took biomechanics to another level and in weaving their pretty patterns forced Arsenal’s wide men to push inside. Even with Nasri strategically positioned to deal with Dani Alves, the Frenchman was unable to get into direct confrontation with the full-back and he and Maxwell on the left continued to bomb forward on the outside with relative little pressure. Arsenal’s formation also made it easier for Barcelona to create triangles as Abou Diaby was elongated to the left and Cesc Fabregas pushing closer to Bendtner. If the pair played either side of Alex Song, perhaps that would have denied the midfielders to get between the lines as they did so easily as then each men would have had a designated man to go up against.
The half-time instructions from Wenger would almost exclusively have been made up of telling his side to squeeze the space better and remain compact and so they entered the second period playing 10 metres higher up the pitch. However, it quickly backfired as a ball over the top of Thomas Vermalen found Zlatan Ibrahimovic to deftly lift the ball over Almunia. For Arsenal, pushing up was the right move to make but Pique was afforded too much room to look up and make a pass while Ibrahimovic took advantage of the uncertainties in marking playing more compact created to bend his run magnificently. The second goal followed almost a carbon copy of the first and with two away goals looked game over. It was a big blow to Arsenal because they had started to come into the game a bit more with Denilson a much more astute presence than Song andf Diaby had been, constantly nipping the ball away from Barcelona’s midfielders (he made 12 interceptions according to PickLive and made the most passes of any of the Gunners’ midfielders despite playing half a match less) and on the whole Arsenal saw more meaningful time on the ball.
Wenger had one more roll of the dice to make and with sixty-seven minutes on the clock brought on Theo Walcott. The England winger’s brain may not be the size of some of his visiting counterparts but his pace more than compensated in a match where pace could make all the difference. His introduction lifted the mood amongst the fans and his directness caused great problems to Maxwell who until then, had the freedom of the left hand side. With Eboue moving to right back it gave Arsenal the double penetrative threat that has served them well in recent games at the Emirates and as Diaby intercepted a pass from Busquets, Walcott was put through. His shot wasn’t the most accurate but it was close enough to Valdes to make it an awkward stretch – the ball rolled under the ‘keeper to give Arsenal hope. Suddenly Barcelona were on the back foot and Walcott had turned Arsenal’s wiggly and unfinished lines to the dynamic and the direct.
Barcelona looked physically and mentally more tired in the second period and credit must go to Arsenal for summoning that extra strength against what must be soul sapping opponents. Cesc Fabregas may be out of the first leg through suspension and an injury that followed his thumping penalty but it ensured he had given Arsenal more than a chance in the return leg. Theo Walcott may have played himself into the starting line-up but thoughts will instantly turn to the way Barcelona had torn apart and humbled Arsenal in the opening exchanges. Abou Diaby looked lost defending against Messi and co while Song’s incessant fouling would go more than punished at the Nou Camp. The three substitutes however gave Arsenal greater structure and that indicated the Gunners’ need another collective performance that matched the last thrity minutes. And Walcott’s cameo gives hope to Arsenal that anything is possible against Guardiola’s Dream Team.